Page 12 of Killer Secrets

She had no accent because she came from everywhere and nowhere.

Someday, she hoped to hear Oklahoma in her voice.

After shutting off the water, she pushed the shower door, but it moved only a few inches before stopping. Poppy lounged on the bath mat, her yellow hair drifting in the air. Mila coaxed her back enough so she could step out, throw on some clothes and then let her into the fenced backyard and watched her through the window over the sink. The garden there was as elaborate as the one out front, and if blooms escaped the dog’s huge feet only to fall victim to the sweep of her brushy tail, it was a small price to pay for having her.

One word in that thought stuck in Mila’s brain, refusing to fall away into oblivion as the others had. Victim. Evan Carlyle’s image appeared, as sharp and clear as it had been in the relentless glare of the midday sun, his body slack, his neck gaping, his eyes… It was always the eyes that stayed with her. A dead body wasn’t obscenely different from a living one, just a shell for a soul that had been ripped away. But something about the eyes… The spirit left them last, watching her, accusing her.

“It wasn’t my fault!”

The words exploded from her with such emotion that Poppy, curiously sniffing a frog, directed her gaze to the window, her head tilted to one side, concern on her goofy, doggy face. Mila wanted to tell her it was all right, to go back to her exploring. She wanted to pet her and thank her for caring. She wanted to drop to the ground beside her and wrap her arms tightly around her neck and let her wild hair tickle her nose.

But fear held her at the sink, on the inside looking out. That had been her life for eleven years: no friends, no family, no school, no everyday dealings with the world. Her father had left her home when he worked or drank. Her mother had left her home when she grocery shopped or paid bills or drank. Most of their neighbors in the towns where they’d lived had never known Mila existed. She didn’t go to the doctor when she was sick or play in the yard or get too close to a window where someone might see. The only people who’d ever seen her were the victims.

For eleven years. An eternity.

When the cell rang, it startled Mila. Her head whipped toward the hall, where the phone was still tucked in the pocket of her jeans. Her breathing was heavy, and her hands shook, but her feet were rooted to the floor.

You try to run away, I’ll kill you.

The ringing stopped, but it would start again in seconds. The only person who ever called her was Gramma, and Gramma wouldn’t be deterred by voice mail.

Fifteen years ago, Gramma hadn’t been deterred by time or distance or the obvious message that her daughter wanted nothing to do with her. She hadn’t even been deterred by the evil in the flesh that was her son-in-law. She’d come to Mila’s rescue, same as she’d done with Poppy, and given her a chance at living. Real life. Not cowering in isolated fear.

The ring sounded again, and so did the faint, faraway whisper. This time it didn’t frighten Mila. After all, she had run away, and he had died in the process.

That was one death she would proudly take credit for.

Dashing into the hallway, she grabbed the phone and held it to her ear. “Hi, Gramma. I’m glad you called.”

* * *

When Sam walked into the squad room at the station the next morning, Ben Little Bear was typing at his computer. He looked comfortable, like he’d been there awhile and intended to stay a good long while longer.

Sam sat down in the chair next to the desk, its ancient wood creaking beneath his weight, and put his hat on the next desk. It was the most beat-up one they had and had gone unused for as long as he could remember. According to his predecessor, some chief long ago had gotten it in the hopes of one day being fully staffed. Operating on a budget, that had never happened.

“What do you have on the Carlyle case?”

Ben saved his work, then swiveled to face him. “The State Department located the wife and kids in Rome. The embassy notified her, and they’re helping expedite their return home. I talked to his boss. He said Carlyle was a solid manager, got along with everyone. He seemed happy in his marriage and adored his daughters. No problems at work, no disgruntled employees, no ex-wife, no money problems, no problems of any kind that he knew of.”